Three seasons, three trips to Omaha. Three highly productive, efficient campaigns that any fan base would enjoy. Despite the success, North Carolina has to wonder what is it going to take to get those final few wins in Omaha. With two runnerup finishes to Oregon State and a bracket final loss to Fresno State, the Tar Heels have been in position. Now the focus is on getting there once again and grabbing the elusive brass ring.
"I think we have a very balanced team entering 2009," said North Carolina head coach Mike Fox. "Our pitching staff is very solid from top to bottom, and, offensively, we will be capable of scoring runs in a number of ways. We cannot wait to get back on campus in our new stadium."
"Until proven otherwise, they are the best team in the country for me," said a college coach. "They have the best offensive player in the conference in (Dustin) Ackley leading what should again be a very good lineup, and they have a pitching staff with almost ridiculous depth led by the two most talented pitchers in the conference in (Alex) White and (Matt) Harvey. I would think that the most challenging part of coaching this team is keeping everyone happy."
"They have as good a # 1 and # 2 with White and (Adam) Warren as anyone," said a second college coach. "They have elite arms and will be solid defensively and offensively - an elite team."
"They have a new stadium so now they have the best stadium and the best players. What else do you need?", said another college coach. "Dustin Ackley is the best player in the conference. He gets out of bed and starts hitting. Their three starters are as good as anybody. They have a ton of guys in the bullpen to mix and match with and are not afraid to do that. The only question I see is offensively after Ackley and (Kyle) Seager. They're one of the best teams in the country."
There may not be a better hitter in the country than first baseman Dustin Ackley (.417/7/51/19 sbs). Ackley has hit over .400 in both of his college seasons and should be an early draft pick in June. Also returning is infielder Kyle Seager (.347/9/75), who is expected to slide to third base after playing second last year. Those two players are among the top hitters in the ACC and are legitimate all-America candidates.
Finding run production after those two players is a question entering the season after losing five position starters. Garrett Gore (.275/2/38) and Ryan Graepel (.253/0/7) are experienced infield options while Mark Fleury (.275/3/25) has some catching experience. Also returning is outfielder Mike Cavasinni, a career .303 hitter who has missed the past two seasons with injury. Others to watch include outfielders Ben Bunting (.227/1/11) and Lenior CC transfer Ryan Norton.
This starting rotation should have no equals in college baseball. Alex White (13-3/2.83) is a probable early first-round pick this June and one of the nation's best pitchers. Adam Warren (9-2/4.23) is a veteran college stalwart while Matt Harvey (7-2/2.79) excelled as a freshman phenom last spring. Rob Catapano (4-0/3.03) adds an experienced fourth starter.
The bullpen will lean on Colin Bates (6-1/2.78) and Brian Moran (1-2/2.76/2 svs) in key roles. Nate Striz (1-0/2.00/2 svs), Logan Munson (0-0/3.00), and Bryant Gaines (0 ER in 6 2/3 IP) provide quality depth.
North Carolina's big games come within the conference as Clemson, Duke, Virginia, Miami, and Maryland all visit Chapel Hill. There are some tough road series at Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Florida State, NC State, and Boston College. Their non-conference schedule doesn't have much pizazz on the weekend but there are some noteworthy midweek games as they face some local mid-majors.
Best Non-Conference Series: VMI
Best Midweek Opponents: Coastal Carolina, East Carolina, Elon
What to watch for
The new stadium is expected to be ready for opening weekend vs. VMI. The Tar Heels return to campus after playing the entire 2008 home season in Cary at the Team USA complex ... Scott Jackson was added to staff as an assistant coach/recruiting coordinator replacing Chad Holbrook who left for South Carolina.
Strengths: Elite rotation; pitching depth; two star hitters
Weaknesses: Proven closer; power; unproven outfield
North Carolina will have better starting pitching each time out which gives them a tremendous advantage. The rotation rivals the 2006 UNC trio of Andrew Miller, Daniel Bard, and Robert Woodard. The key for the Tar Heels will be filing in for those departed position starters and getting production after those top proven hitters. Each season new hitters seem to emerge for the Fox's offense. They'll need to continue that trend to finally grab their ultimate goal.
This team has everything it needs to contend for the ACC title, a National seed, and make a fourth consecutive journey to Omaha.